Deconstructing the US Terrorism Meta-narrative.

Broadly speaking, the way in which terrorists have been depicted in the US has some interesting, contrasting themes. White native-born (male) individuals who commit acts of politically-motivated lethal violence are generally depicted as marginalized sociopathic psychos rather than as individuals acting out of sincere ideological belief (I say “sincere” because homicidal individuals often attach themselves or attribute their actions to political causes without fully subscribing to the ideological precepts underpinning them). This lumps this type of terrorist in with genuinely insane psychopaths and allows the state to address their acts as criminal offenses rather than as political crimes.

For example, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City bombers and Atlanta Olympics bomber all acted out of sincere ideological conviction (Unabomber Ted Kaczynski published a 35,000 word manifesto of his beliefs). Yet, they were treated by the justice system less like al-Qaeda style fighters and more like the criminally deranged Tucson shooter who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and killed six others.

In the 1960s and 1970s groups like the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army and Weathermen were treated as guerrilla groups, which by definition recognizes that their challenges to authority are based on contrary political ideologies. These groups marshaled their opposition to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Capitalist (WASP/C) status quo along racial and class lines. The used an unconventional war of position to convey their counter-hegemonic resistance to things as given. Because of this, the state saw them as an existential threat that challenged the socio-economic, cultural and political parameters of US society. They were treated accordingly, which in some cases slipped into extra-judicial punishment.

The predominant US born white male terrorist profile is that of a loner or small cell member whose ideological foundation is at the core of the WASP/C value system. The WASP/C terrorist believes in individual choice and natural rights in a free market unencumbered by tyranny. He may believe in God, a preferred religion and/or racial hierarchy. He despises the central (federal) government, foreign agencies and often times large corporations.

In effect, his armed critique of the system comes from deep within rather than from without. He sees the usurpation of traditional values and hierarchies as evidence of terminal moral decline, and he feels compelled to stand against it. He is a modern Minuteman.

This is why the WASP/C terrorist is treated like a psychopath rather than as a guerrilla or unconventional fighter. His values are too “close to the bone” of the US belief system to be treated first as an ideological critique rather than as deranged.  Instead, the WASP/C terrorist is profiled as having severe unresolved personal issues, to include sublimated or repressed sexual urges that are eventually expressed through anti-social violence. However he is portrayed, his political motivations are downplayed in favor of flawed personal psychological traits.

In recent times the terrorist challenge in the US has been seen by the state as coming from foreign-based Muslims and their domestic supporters. These have been treated much in the way the guerrilla groups of the 1960s and 1970s were. They are depicted as having an ideology that is anathema to the American way of life. They are held to hate US values and its freedoms. The fight against them is framed in existential and civilizational terms. Focus on the criminality of their acts is shared by focus on the ideological reasons for them. They are considered to be ideological enemies as much if not more than as criminals.

The two-track meta-narrative on terrorists allows the US to reaffirm its core beliefs without subjecting them to re-examination. It reinforces the dominant ideology by differentiating between criminal and political violence along lines that do not challenge core WASP/C values and beliefs, which are now shared by non-WASPs and WASPs alike (popularized in the “anyone can make it here” credo epitomized by the Obama presidency).

Although it is easy to see why the US would adopt this meta-narrative on terrorism, it is unfortunate. It creates two standards of justice, one political and one criminal, with which to treat terrorists. This is inimical to the equal justice underpinnings of liberal democracies and paves the way for the creation of parallel judicial systems such as that seen in the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals.

It would seem preferable to treat all terrorism as criminal offenses. The issue is not whether the perpetrators are foreign or domestic. The type and location of the crime is what matters, and issues of nationality or domicile are at most the justification for extradition requests. Political or psychological reasons can be offered as an explanation for why terrorist acts were committed, but they cannot be used for the purposes of meting our different standards of justice. That has the benefit of reassuring friend and foe alike that the focus will be on the crime, not the cause.

That, in of itself, can be a significant deterrent to those who would otherwise pursue terrorism as a form of political expression.

Postscript: It will be interesting to see which narrative emerges with regard to the Chechnyan brothers involved in the Boston bombings. Home grown, self-radicalized small cell jihadis, part of an international al-Qaeda plot, or siblings with some creepy inter-personal dynamics? The rightwing US media already see the Muslim -bashing angle as the preferred interpretation, but the official government response (so far) is to not be as quick to attribute ideological rather than criminal intent to their actions.

5 thoughts on “Deconstructing the US Terrorism Meta-narrative.

  1. My guess is that the Tsarnaevs were ‘lone wolves’ – they probably admired Muslim groups like Al Qaeda or (more likely) Dokha Umarov’s Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, but acted without any chain of command or support.

    As for the overarching narrative of terrorism, IMO Paul Pillar said it best (and he said it about 15 years ago, too):

    “[He] saw terrorism fundamentally as ‘a challenge to be managed, not solved’… Terrorist attacks seemed likely to become a permanent feature of American experience… He objected to the metaphor of waging ‘war’ against terrorism because ‘it is a war that cannot be won’ and also ‘unlike most wars, it has neither a fixed set of enemies nor the prospect of coming to closure’. A better analogy than war might be ‘the effort by public health authorities to control communicable diseases’. A lesson of American counterterrorism efforts since the 1980s was that the threat could not defeated, only ‘reduced, attenuated, and to some degree controlled’. Striving for zero terrorist attacks would be as unhealthy for American foreign policy as striving for zero unemployment would be for the economy…”

  2. Hugh:

    Pillar’s argument is not a narrative. It is a proposed approach, one that I tend to agree with. Narratives are constructed as a means of interpreting events and assigning motivation, responsibility, causality etc. They can be legitimating or delegitimating depending on the subject and the narrator’s point of view. They may be related to the counter-terrorism approach but are not the same thing.

    The Tsarnaevs cannot be Lone Wolves because by definition the Lone Wolf operates alone. These fellows appear to be very typical WASP/C terrorists in small cell, self radicalized guise, with the wrinkle being that they are Muslim and Chechnyan. I would not be surprised if the official narrative treats them as WASP/C types.

  3. I would not be surprised if the official narrative treats them as WASP/C types.

    Indications that they (the brother who remains alive, and three others arrested in connection) are to be tried as criminals in civilian court, and not as post-9/11 enemy combatants, seem to confirm this view. The counter is Fox News and various conservative extremists shrieking about how Muslims is Muslims, and al-Qaeda has been trying to recruit Caucasians to defeat the authorities’ hugely-effective ethnic profiling strategy.


  4. Alan Dershowitz did a brilliant job of demolishing the enemy combatant suggestion as well as the FBI justification for not reading the younger brother his Miranda Rights under the public safety exception clause. He noted that the wounded suspect was a) no longer a threat to public safety; and b) a US citizen. He said that the FBI has already committed a major error by not reading him his rights and that even a public defender will have a field day with that violation as well as any attempt to classify him as an enemy combatant for the purposes of subjecting him to a military tribunal rather than a criminal court.

    Given the severity of his wounds, the rationale that he needed to be questioned without the Miranda warning in the interest of locating other conspirators will be grounds for legal challenge as well. He was down for the count, in shock, semi-conscious, and therefore unable to give consent much less a coherent answer to all but the most rudimentary question.

    Should he survive, be prepared for a lengthy court process because the challenges and arguments will be many and from both sides. It is, after all, the American way of litigation.

    The fact that Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (both Republicans) called for him to be treated as an enemy combatant shows how desperate the GOP is, as well as its disregard for fundamental protections under the law.

  5. It saddens me that “He’s a US Citizen” is seen as an argument in favour of upholding Miranda rights. The Miranda ruling did not mention citizenship, and the rights it was intended to safeguard are not limited to US Citizens, but to anybody arrested by US authorities.

    Having said that, I think Jerry Seinfeld has a pretty significant point when he says that Miranda is so widespread in popular culture that everybody basically knows their rights in that situation anyway.

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